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Green Dreamin'

What do you get when you cross a deep energy retrofit with an 1880s Victorian-style home?

July 02, 2012
July/August 2012
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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When Jen and David Hovis began to seek out their energy-efficient dream home in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, their list of must-haves was short but insistent. First of all, their new house had to be big enough to accommodate their two boisterous, fast-growing boys, as well as both sets of visiting grandparents. They also preferred to remain on the city’s Near West Side, a historic area of stately Victorians and charming sidewalk cafes where they’d happily begun to put down roots with other families. Finally, they wanted their home to be comfortable, sustainable, and affordable.

But as Jen and David began looking at available homes with their Realtor, they quickly realized that their dream home didn’t exist. Most of the homes they saw either weren’t large enough or were too pricey to justify the retrofit work they needed. There were a number of rehabbed homes on the market, but the renovations put more emphasis on granite countertops and stainless appliances than on R-ratings and blown-in insulation. The kind of custom, ultragreen home that the Hovises sought was rare, indeed.

Bob Perkoski

That’s when Jen and David stumbled upon a grand old Victorian on West 32nd Street in the heart of Ohio City. The 4,000 ft2 home had been badly fire damaged when a ramshackle boarding house next door burned down. Despite its current rough condition, however, the home’s innate charm was evident in the curved, spindled staircase, old pine floors, and welcoming front porch. Certainly it was large enough to accommodate the growing family’s needs—and then some.

The Victorian was on the market for a mere $40,000. Its out-of-town owners, who’d used it as a rental property, didn’t want the hassle of making repairs. The question was, could this inefficient behemoth be renovated to produce genuine energy savings? The Hovises weren’t sure.

First the old wood needed to be stripped and the surface prepared for the many control layers we had to add.

“The house was dark and parts of it were closed off, but right away I fell in love with the gorgeous staircase with its heavy, turned spindles,” says Jen Hovis, a physician who works at the Veterans Hospital in Brecksville, a suburb just south of Cleveland. “The fireplace was also in immaculate shape, even though its walls were black with soot.”

Despite the obvious fire damage, the Hovises saw potential. And because they hadn’t found their dream home on the market, they decided to create it for themselves. Within days, they’d signed a contract and launched the daunting task of retrofitting this leaky, draft-ridden old home into the perfect green home for their family.

The Hovises decided to pursue a deep energy retrofit (DER). A DER is a construction process that uses an integrative, whole-house approach to achieve much more significant energy savings than conventional energy retrofits. Although the process is time-consuming and complex, the potential for savings is immense.

Six months later, the renovation of the Hovises’ home was nearly complete. It was not without a host of challenges, however—including replacing siding, plugging unseen leaks, pouring a new basement floor, and finding the best possible workers. Nonetheless, the results are impressive. Completing a DER added about $50,000 to their rehab costs, yet the home now consumes 80% less energy and saves $6,000 per year in annual utility costs compared to the annual utility costs the previous owners incurred before renovation. Because they plan to stay there, that’s a rough payback period of less than ten years—and if you factor in the low-interest financing they received from urban rehab programs in Cleveland, the payback period is actually even less.

“Our home is now five times as efficient as when we bought it,” says David, a research engineer who studies material science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “It’s also more than twice as efficient as an Energy Star house, and nearly three times as efficient as a home built to today’s building code.

“The energy modeling predicted that we would use about 85,000 cubic feet (85 MCF) of natural gas for heating and 20 MCF for hot water (not including the gas dryer), for a total of about 105 MCF per year,” continues Hovis. “We actually used 58 MCF in the year ending February 23, 2012 (which included the gas dryer). The estimated numbers for the baseline of the house (assuming conditions as they were prior to the fire) were 650 MCF for heating and 40 MCF for hot water. I have no way to confirm these numbers, though the estimate of 80% reduction seems to be confirmed by the degree to which Dominion East Ohio, our gas company, overestimates our gas usage.”

The electricity data are also impressive. Postretrofit, the predicted energy use was 14,421 kWh per year. The actual energy use through February 20, 2012, was 11,220 kWh per year.

Working on the nail base for the new siding. (Matt Berges)

House wrap, two layers of foam (staggered seams), then another well-sealed layer of house wrap. (Matt Berges)

Three-inch ISO board on the top side of the roof. (Matt Berges)

Lots of hard-to-get-to spots on this home. (Matt Berges)

Deciding on a DER

DERs are often more challenging to complete on larger, historic homes because these homes are typically complex in shape and design, which makes them costly to insulate. “At first I thought, ‘Oh God, this is an awful house for a deep energy retrofit,’” says Matt Berges, the Hovises’ contractor, with a laugh. Berges had first learned about green building while working for Habitat for Humanity in California. Since then, he has built a successful career specializing in high-performance home retrofits and new construction.

“In searching for projects that would make a good example of a deep energy retrofit, I was looking for a house small, simple, and rectangular in shape. This house had tons of dormers, bump outs, and historic features, so I figured it would be too costly,” Berges explains. “Then I realized that a bigger energy hog means a bigger payback. The potential for savings was huge.”

In short, Berges, who has completed more than 100 projects in Cleveland, had found the perfect test home for mastering the DER’s complex art. If he could complete a successful retrofit of a drafty, old Victorian that leaked like a sieve, then, well… he could pretty much do this anywhere, right?

It helped that the Hovises were very committed to doing a comprehensive green rehab of their home. “When they said the words deep energy retrofit, I was willing to meet with them,” recounts Berges. “Having a customer that allowed me to do this project was very exciting.”

For the Hovises, it was also a perfect match. “Matt liked us because we were clients who cared more about insulation than granite countertops,” says David with a laugh.

Even so, the Hovises soon discovered that while almost any rehab project is a moving target, DERs are a minefield of tough, hard-to-swallow decisions. Once the plaster was gone, the scope of work soon expanded to address hidden problems.

A Continuous Thermal Barrier Starts in the Basement

“There were a lot of unknowns. It can be like opening a can of worms,” explains Berges, who soon demolished the interior so that a full scope of work could be identified. “A lot of areas ended up being worst-case scenario.”

One of the first decisions that the Hovises had to make was whether or not to tear up the basement floor and pour a new one. Berges had been through this decision-making process when completing a DER of his own home, and one of his regrets was that he elected not to do it initially. (He ended up pouring a new floor later, which was more expensive and difficult.) The Hovises listened to his advice and took the plunge.

“A lot of people want to skip the basement floor removal,” says Berges. “But once you seal the house up so tight like we do, it gets harder to ignore a less-than-perfect basement assembly that will allow moisture and contaminants like radon to work their way up and into the house. You need a continuous and uninterrupted air and thermal barrier on or around the entire enclosure. If you ignore the basement, then it eventually catches up to you.”

In addition to allowing moisture to gain entry into the house, most basements in older homes contain the furnace, hot-water tank, and other mechanical systems. If the basement is dank and moldy, then dank, moldy air gets circulated throughout the entire house, compromising indoor air quality (IAQ). Removing the floor and pouring a new one at a later date, once the mechanicals are installed, can also double or triple the price.

To address the house’s “dungeon basement,” as Berges describes it, he and his crew demolished the entire floor, dug a foot down in order to raise the ceiling height (since gravel and rigid foam had to be added), and poured a new floor. They also installed an interior drainage system, insulated the basement walls, and installed a subsystem passive radon stack to keep soil gases from entering the house. “We dug down and found tree roots and all sorts of things under there,” says Berges.

Stone walls in the basement were sprayed with closed-cell foam so that they were moisture impervious, which tied into below-slab foam that was complete and continuous. David Hovis now stores his woodworking equipment in his basement, which is dry and comfortable.

A Protective Membrane Around the Entire House

One of the other challenges that the Hovises and their contractor faced was what to do about the wood siding. Although much of it looked salvageable from the outside, once the crew closely examined it, they realized that it could undermine their work. Not only was it rotting, but there were gaps in it, leaving places where water could get in. There was no weather barrier behind the siding to protect the sheeting or insulation that the contracting crew would be adding on the inside of the home.

“We toyed with the idea of scraping and painting the older siding for a moment, but we knew that to ensure that this building could last another hundred-plus years, we would need to insulate and protect the structure better,” says Berges. “We had to add exterior control layers for air, thermal, and moisture protection, including two layers of rigid foam and a good drainage plane. Those things just don’t exist in older houses. We waste extreme amounts of energy through our typical 2 x 4 walls. As a result, to get a fresh start, we ended up removing and replacing all of the exterior siding, which was obviously a big part of what made our overall approach more expensive.”

Compared with a normal renovation, what Berges proposed was costly and labor intensive, but it was also cost effective, considering the end result. “Typically, you’d put fiberglass batts or dense-packed cellulose between the studs, but then you haven’t stopped the moisture and air movement through these old wall assemblies,” he says. “You need to wrap the house in multiple layers of protection.”

By covering the entire house in two layers of 1-inch polyiso foam, installing house wrap, and strapping for a drainage plane behind the new HardiPlank siding, Berges kept the exterior “dry, conditioned, and controlled.” That allowed him to use a more affordable, typical approach on the inside cavities. The overall approach made the house R-12 on the exterior with an added R-13 between the cavities. Despite the extra costs involved, Berges says the insulation will increase long-term durability, IAQ, and affordability.

“People drop $30,000 on kitchens and baths, so why not invest an extra $30,000 in energy savings?” Berges says. “In 100 years, you could replace the kitchen and heating system three times. These improvements are not short term—they’ll be there long after I’m gone.”

Interior perimeter drainage and thermal detailing below the new slab. (Matt Berges)

New slab poured inside a "pan" of foam, with thermally broken edges. (Matt Berges)

Wall foam and drainage plane strapping secures the system and provides a nail base for the new siding. (Matt Berges)

Exterior buck frames with cedar sills get head flashing. (Matt Berges)

Historic and Green

Because the Hovises used a low-interest loan program that was offered by the nonprofit Cleveland Restoration Society, exterior choices were critical. When it came time to choose windows, for instance, it was important that they fit in with the character of the home, which was built in the 1880s in an Eastlake style bordering on Craftsman.

“Because we were completing a historic renovation, the windows had to be fiberglass, wood, or aluminum,” explains Berges. “Had it not been a historic renovation, we could have put one-third of the cost into vinyl windows and achieved the same energy savings, thus shortening our payback time tremendously. Instead, the owners chose a high-quality fiberglass window.”

Although he admits that he was “torn” between finding cost-effective solutions and restoring the home’s historic integrity, Berges was ultimately happy with the choice. “Vinyl has more negative repercussions for the environment than fiberglass,” he admits. “Also, I can appreciate how nice the house looks now, having followed these guidelines.”

The Hovises say that it was sometimes difficult to navigate between the goals of a historic renovation and a green rehab, but that they too are happy with their choices. Moreover, the successful DER of their home suggests that, while doing a historic green rehab requires some tough choices, the two goals are not mutually exclusive.

Doing the Roof the Right Way

One of the toughest challenges Berges faced was finding a roofing crew that was up for installing the new roof assembly, which included 3 inches of rigid foam on the top (under the new oriented strand board and shingles). This was not an easy roof to work on. Ultimately, he decided to relieve his roofing crew and have his trim carpentry crew install the rigid foam to get the quality he wanted. “You need a trim carpentry mind-set, and guys that appreciate what you’re trying to do,” Berges says. “After achieving an R-19 continuous rating on the top side and R-22 on the inside, we were satisfied.”

What Berges learned from working with his roofing crews actually applies to the entire job. Over the years, he has built up a reliable crew of workers who understand his objectives and help him to achieve his radical energy efficiency goals. “Everyone plays a part in sabotaging a good building envelope, so it really takes involvement and buy-in from all of the subcontractors,” he says. “Since I started doing this, I have gotten together a good group of guys that support the mission.”

Finishing the Interior

The Hovises’ interior finish choices were environmentally conscious, too. They reused old framing lumber in their new framing work, reused wooden doors that were salvaged from a former convent in the nearby Slavic Village neighborhood, and installed high-efficiency mechanical systems and Energy Star appliances throughout the home.

Today, the house is a thoughtful blend of old and new, historic and contemporary. The original pine floors in the foyer and living room were refinished, a portion of the old curved plaster wall was preserved, and the elegant staircase has been fully restored. At the same time, the kitchen, bathrooms, and most other rooms are completely new.

The Hovises also paid attention to details many homeowners would overlook. They made sure that the cabinets were sealed, since it is difficult to find formaldehyde-free cabinets. This is an approach recommended by Green Communities, says Berges.

“They did not just rely on me to make all of the decisions,” he says. “They were part of the team, and we all worked to meet the many goals of the project.”

The Hovis family in their Cleveland home. (Bob Perkoski)

The Finished Product

In the fall of 2010, the Hovises moved into their newly restored, five-bedroom green-built home. Not only are they happy with their spacious home and the surrounding neighborhood, but their DER is now producing impressive energy savings.

“I wanted to get to a 75% energy reduction, which is how Linda Wigington of ACI has defined a DER, and show that this could offer a less-than-ten-year payback,” says Berges, who is constantly working to fine-tune DER modeling so that such practices can be replicated in other homes. “Once you factor in the low purchase price and the low-interest financing, it’s like, ‘Yeah, of course I would want to do that.’”

The HERS score of the home before it was renovated was 181, which is very poor. An Energy Star home typically has a HERS score of 85. Today, the HERS score of the Hovises’ home is 38.

There are plenty of barriers to completing a successful DER, Berges knows. In addition to the fact that it’s more expensive (typically by $25,000–50,000 for most renovations), he says, lenders, appraisers, and real estate agents don’t always appreciate the value such features bring to a comprehensively rehabbed home. Moreover, smaller homes generate smaller cost savings.

learn more

To learn more about the Cleveland Restoration Society, visit www.clevelandrestoration.org.

For more information on Environmental Health Watch, visit www.ehw.org.

Contact Matt Berges at Bergesllc.com.

Berges also works with Environmental Health Watch, a local nonprofit organization. In this capacity, he is helping to bring the DER model into the rehabilitation of homes for low- to
moderate-income families. In partnership with other builders and developers, he has completed a number of home renovations in which the average HERS score is in the low 30s. The cost of renovation has also become more affordable over time.

Beyond the cost savings and environmental benefits, Jen and David are thrilled about staying in the Ohio City neighborhood they love. The boys enjoy nearby Fairview Park and they all enjoy walking to cafes and farmers’ markets. Many of their best friends live within walking distance, too.

“We’re grounded in the Ohio City neighborhood, and there’s a social network for everyone here,” says Jen. “We wanted to do a green rehab, find a good deal, and buy a larger home in our neighborhood—and we were able to do that.”

Lee Chilcote is a freelance journalist who lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. He writes about urban redevelopment for a number of regional and national magazines.

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